James Bond Retrospective: The Living Daylights

Bond is back! This time Timothy Dalton does his first Bond film, and the verdict? Absolutely smashing! In this week’s Bond retrospective we will:

  • Talk about pacing and the different ways film can keep its momentum
  • Explore the tone of the film and Dalton’s nuanced character and performance
  • See a Bond girl walk the fine line between very annoying and very cute.

Without further ado, the film is…

The Living Daylights (1987)

Screenshot_20191205-011727_Prime Video
You know what Bond needed? To look like Superman.

This was an attempt to get back to Bond basics. For realsies this time. It plays a tad like some of the more grounded Moore films (along with some of his supporting cast), but Dalton’s energy and the film’s strong script make this a complete treat. It always feels fresh seeing it again, and it always feels modern despite being clearly stuck in the late eighties, both in look and politics (hello Afghanistan!).

The Plot

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American spies seem like they have so much fun.

Someone is hunting down 00’s and recent Soviet defector Georgi Koskov points to General Leonid Pushkin for bringing back the old “murder spies” program. Koskov gets kidnapped by the KGB for defecting, but Bond senses something fishy. Pushkin doesn’t seem the type of man Koskov claimed he was.

On the hunt for Koskov, and ignoring M’s orders to murder Pushkin, Bond tracks down the woman that attempted to murder Koskov during his defection: Kara Milovy. Milovy is an extremely talented cellist but Bond realize she is actually Koskov’s girlfriend and was told by Koskov to bring a sniper up there to make the fake defection seem real.

General Pushkin informs arms dealer, military reject, and crazy jingo-American Brad Whitaker that the KGB will no longer buy weapons from him and demand a refund of the unsupplied weapons. When Pushkin gets back home, Bond interrogates him and realizes both have no clue what is actually going on. Pushkin and Bond fake Pushkin’s assassination so the bad guys can take the bait. Koskov reveals he’s 100% an asshole and takes Bond to a Soviet prison in Afghanistan for assassinating Pushkin. He throws his girlfriend in prison too. Because…?

Bond and Milovy escape and help a fellow prisoner named Mujahideen. Muja (his friends call him that and we are totally friends) in return hooks them up with rest and relaxation, but Bond needs to know what the deal is with Koskov.

Turns out Koskov and Whitaker take the Soviet payments and buy diamonds and drugs for profit, and use the profits to compensate the Soviets at a later, more convenient time. Bond asks Muja if they could help, and they give him a bomb to detonate on the plane AFTER they get that sweet sweet money. Bond sets up the bomb on the plane of drugs, but is caught by Koskov and his sexy male henchman.

Bond instead opts to drive away in the plane full of drugs, Milovy convinces Muja to help Bond and Milovy joins Bond in the air as they beat the henchman. They defuse the bomb then refuse (is this a word meaning “to fuse again?”, it is now.) to drop on Soviets attacking Muja, and escape the plane before it crashes into a wall.

Bond kills Whitaker in his base, Pushkin arrests Koskov, and everybody watches Milovy’s concert while Bond hangs out in her dressing room to see her. Happy ending!

A Closer Look

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If you’re going to make all of history’s generals look like you, at least lie a little bit. Lose twenty pounds, add some abs, maybe throw a cucumber down there.

So what’s great about the film is three things that all intertwine: the action, the script, and Dalton.

Having taken zero screenwriting classes, I can tell you with full confidence this kind of action is the best way to write an action movie. Every moment of action has a specific purpose, be it Bond sparing Milovy in the opening (showing his weakness for women) or pushes the plot forward in such a nice progression that it always feels natural. For example, the climax of the film features a bomb on the plane Bond is hijacking. At every step Bond has to improvise a solution that leads to another problem. Gas leaking, bomb juggling, car escaping out of the plane. This resourcefulness is fascinating and has a nice coherent logic to it. He hides the bomb in a bag hidden with a bunch of bags? Now he’s gotta dig for it. Contrast with most Bonds where things just happen for the sake of happening, like… I don’t know… The sudden spider in Dr. No (1962)? When sudden things happen, like the British agent’s death at the fair, it still clearly exemplifies character. The death makes Bond pissed and he pulls out a gun on anybody holding a balloon.

Speaking of character, Bond has one here! He’s no longer the paragon of British values, instead his competence is in his job. He’s a great killer, and possibly a tad disturbed. He has flaws and desires. He has fears and enthusiasm. Dalton plays a Bond with possibly the widest and most demanding set of emotions since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Unlike Lazenby, Dalton pulls it off with wonders. With his delivery, you can see his complex emotions and know exactly what Bond is feeling in a given moment. It helps that he brings a very grounded human energy to the character, this very much fits the tone better than when Moore tried to be serious.

And this isn’t to say the tone is completely dry. Humor here is handled delicately. The closest thing to a cartoon is Whitaker, and Whitaker is only in a few scenes. Bond’s one-liners make a comeback, but they’re tasteful and usually made as decisive punctuation for scenes.

What’s Good?

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This is the moment Bond has a mid-life crisis. You know he wanted to be a musician before this silly spy stuff? God, the years pass quickly.

Dalton is a treasure, the pacing is a treasure, the plot is a treasure. To spend a little more on the plot, this utilizes a unique setting (Afghanistan) and offers some very different attitudes towards politics other action films do not.

I’m talking about Whitaker. The Patton wannabe is the evil mastermind. Rejected by the military, he pretends to be a military genius while applauding the tyrant generals of history. Come on, it was almost the nineties, there was no way you could say “Robert E. Lee could have won” or have a statue of Hitler without seeming a little off your rocker. The American stereotype is welcomed by me here, especially in the context of eighties action films. That was a genre and time largely dependent on conservative military politics. It is really fun and making the villain lean toward comedy is a smart move to let everyone else breathe.

Milovy is a well written Bond girl. A tad annoying, yes. She’s needy, but it’s well considered within her role. The cello was a brilliant addition, giving us an audio-visual link to her beauty without her actual physical beauty. More Bond girls should be given tangible talents, these things go far in considering a character. By the end the resolution and reward is seeing her play one more time. That’s a success in my book.

What’s Bad?

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Almost twenty years of Bond car technology and still the innovation is lasers. Q needs to stop making rocket launching stereos. “Ghetto blasters”? Cancel culture Q please.

The film feels securely rooted in its era. Be it in aesthetic or music choices. Multiple bands contributed to this soundtrack, Ah-Ha handled the theme song. It isn’t a bad song either, but these intro songs are used throughout the film’s score, and even with Barry at the helm (his last Bond venture!) it doesn’t mesh well with all the different emotions. The song feels understated, which I think is a general view of the film.

The film at its lowest feels reminiscent of the later Moore films, which makes complete sense because they’re all done by John Glen. Glen has a wonderful eye for images and motion, but there is something limiting to his work.

Not much else is bad here! I suppose when Dalton fails the most when he tries his best to be like Bonds that have come before. This is specifically referring to catchphrases like “shaken, not stirred”. He is charming when he has chemistry with someone else, when he is just in front of a camera he is at odds from being charming to the viewer and the specific brand of Bond charming.

Looking Forward

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Ma’am, your interior decorator is robbing you.

This was the better Dalton film. The next one has more studio interference and Dalton gets more unhappy with the project. After that, it is another actor and another era. Pierce Brosnan will rein in our 2020 retrospective!

What I Drank

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There is no way I look stupid in these.

A toast to a new Bond! I went for a “perfect martini” which is 2 ounces of vodka or gin, half ounce of dry vermouth and a half ounce of sweet vermouth. It’s called perfect because sweet vermouth is actually pleasant to drink. Garnish with olives or lemon, I will always recommend lemon for a Bond drink.

 

One thought on “James Bond Retrospective: The Living Daylights

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